Your Guide to Free Family-Friendly Fun in the Dairy State
The Dairy State offers a whole lot more than just Grade A Parmesan and cheddar. Wisconsin’s gorgeous landscape was born out of a massive glacier that swept across the state 10,000 years ago, resulting in pristine lakes, winding rivers and all-around breathtaking topography. Kids will love the variety of nature-centered activities, and parents will love the low cost. Everyone will love the cheese.
For the Curious-Minded: University of Wisconsin Geology Museum
It’s hard not to get excited about science at the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum (1215 W. Dayton St., Weeks Hall, Madison, WI), a small museum that packs a lot of punch for adults and kids alike. This hidden gem has free admission and is filled with a variety of displays: meteorites, minerals, fossils and dinosaur bones. The museum features interactive displays, including a glow-in-the-dark exhibit in which specimens light up under a black light. The museum is not open on Sundays.
For the Armchair Adventurers: Aquanut Water Show
If your travels take you to Twin Lakes in the summer months, then the free Aquanut Water Show (55 Lance Dr., Twin Lakes, WI) in Kenosha is not to be missed. Every Wednesday and Saturday at 6 p.m. the award-winning water ski team will wow both young and old with their spectacular water stunts. A campy MC will keep the kids laughing, and if you bring blankets and snacks, it’s easy to have an evening picnic on the sandy expanse of beach where spectators gather.
For the Animal Lovers: Henry Vilas Zoo
The Henry Vilas Zoo (702 S. Randall Ave., Madison, WI) is the only free zoo in the state and definitely worth a visit. The staff here are super-friendly, enthusiastic and clearly passionate about the animals, which include lions, tigers, monkeys, giraffes and bears. Kids will love the petting zoo, the train ride and indoor carousel, and parents will love the very reasonable prices at the snack bars. The highlight is probably the café with a large window that overlooks the polar bears. As a bonus, it’s right off Lake Wingra, so when the weather cooperates, you can swim from the beach.
For the Water Lovers: Merrimac Ferry Ride
Watch the river scenery unfold on the only free ferry ride in Wisconsin, the Merrimac ferry (State Road 113, Merrimac, WI). This is a short but fun experience made totally worthwhile, not only for the beautiful backdrop but for the ice cream stands on both sides. Rumor has it that the sweet treats are better on the Merrimac side.
For the Nature Lovers: Devil's Lake State Park
The Merrimac ferry will take you directly to Devil's Lake State Park (S5975 Park Rd., Baraboo, WI), one of the most stunning natural areas in Wisconsin. The park has lots of free fantastic hiking trails ranging from easy to very challenging. The trails have lookout points with views of the lake and surrounding areas. The park also includes lovely sand beaches, kayak rentals and a dedicated swimming area. Among the trails is one that is part of the Ice Age Scenic National Trail.